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Linguistic thought

This blog post takes place between 10 am and 11am some day before last Sunday…

dun dun… (24 theme)

I was having a conversation with my principal and vice principal and one of the administrative workers at Okidai today, scarily enough, about getting fired. My principal (!) had earlier made the joke that, because I did not have any work to do (a.k.a. I only had two classes today because of the upcoming 運動会(exercise festival) and none tomorrow) I had no job, and indeed had been fired. Luckily, I recognized it as a joke right away. Also, they can’t actually fire me, so I wasn’t too worried. As an interesting aside, the word for “fired” in Japanese is 首切り(くびきり,kubikiri), literally meaning to cut off one’s head. Ahhh ancient Japanese culture! Anyway, this is all a very long interlude to what I really wanted to talk about, which is what happened next. The conversation switched over, as it naturally does, from me being fired to how good my Japanese is. My principal offered to have me use one of the sixth grade kanji textbooks so I could study more, and I said that would be great, though at this moment I am only focusing on learning words, not kanji. As I put it, communication is much more important. The world for communication in Japanese is “コミュニケーション” which is an incredibly difficult looking word that is pronounced “Communication” but with a Japanese accent. So instead of saying: “communicationの方が大切だと思います”, with Communication pronounced in English, I said: “コミュニケーションの方が大切だと思います” It seems like such a small little thing, but isn’t that usually how these things start?

My vice principal then wondered whether living in Japan would hurt my English pronunciation, and he pointed to the example of me using “communication” in Japanese. So here’s my question to you all. If a word had been basically taken directly from a foreign language and implanted into a different language, is it, as a speaker of both languages, acceptable to use the “English” pronunciation within a Japanese sentence? Is that word still English, or has it become Japanese? It may seem like a relatively simple question but I don’t think it’s quite so easy to answer.

To begin, I’m going to say that this is not an issue in Japanese alone, though it’s the main topic for this discussion since I’m in Japan. We have the same issues in English, where words from French or German or anywhere else have been simply taken and plopped into the language. We have at times changed the pronunciation, and at times have kept it exactly the same. I refer to, for example, a “frappe”, a tasty coffee drink, or a town in Wisconsin called “Fond du lac”, which somehow has come to be pronounced “Fondle-ack.”

On the one hand, the words are exactly the same. It’s not even as if they did what they do with many other foreign words, which is mangle them until they basically are Japanese, for example the word for part time job, which is “baito” from the German “arbeit,” which means to work. Take as another example the name for a police car in Japanese. It is a “patoka-” which at one point must have sounded somewhat similarly to “Patrol Car.” In these instances, I think it is safe to say that you cannot say them in an “English” or “German” accent because they are not actually words in those languages anymore. With words such as “Communication” however, the differences are quite negligible. The Japanese will understand you perfectly well if you say “communication” instead of “コミュニケーション” so it’s not an issue of becoming lost in translation, it’s merely an issue of accent, of intonation.

Yet on the other hand, because the word is being used in this language, should it not become by that fact alone a “Japanese” word?

Let me give some more examples, this time not using Japanese but using our own English. Works like: cliché, clique, crêpe and many others have been lifted straight from French. For one of these (cliché) we have lifted the correct pronunciation along with it. In fact, even my auto-correct tool on my computer adds the accent when I don’t type it myself. For words such as clique (most often heard as “click”) and crêpe (most often heard as “craype”) though, we have changed the pronunciations. And we cannot even use the same excuse Japanese people can, that we don’t have enough pronunciations in our language to make the sounds. We are perfectly capable of saying: “clique” or “crêpe” but for some reason do not. So then are these English words now? Does a speaker of French face ridicule for pronouncing the word “correctly” while speaking English? For example, when one of my classmates from school pronounced croissant “croissant” in a French accent, he was ridiculed for not saying: “crossant” the way we say it. He exclaimed that he did not know how to say it in English, an interesting response considering it’s not technically even an English word. OR IS IT?! That’s what I’m trying to figure out.

This is mostly kind of a thought process, not a very well thought out argument so I hope you’ll forgive me for jumping back and forth a little. But what do you think? Are words which are lifted from foreign languages into other languages still foreign words? Or do they become, through the process of this lifting, a part of the new language? Do we make distinctions depending on how we pronounce them or is there one single standard? For those of us who speak multiple languages, do we say these foreign words in the way of the language we are speaking in? Or in the original language of the word we are using? Do you know any linguists who have done work on this?

I have no answers for you. Especially in Japanese where they change the words so much, I think distinctions have to be made when entire words are shortened (patoka-, baito). But for words like “communication” it feels silly for me to say: “コミュニケーション” when I could just as easily say “communication.” And yet I think to Japanese people you are not speaking fluently until you speak the whole language, foreign words or not.

Think about it! Let me know, I’m eager to hear your thoughts.

Categories: Japan, Linguistics Tags: , ,
  1. Sam K
    October 14, 2009 at 10:38 am

    Im surprised there are no responses yet. I think that if you happen to speak the language, you should pronounce the word in your own language (communication with English accent. Nobody made fun of the Mexican kid in my class says “taquilla” with a Mexican accent when he has no Mexican accent when he normally talks for any other words (except other Spanish words). Sure, it might sound a little pretentious to you, but I think everyone expects you to say it in your language. However, I distinctly remember having to pounce Boston with a Spanish accent (more like “bose-town” than “boss-ton”) because nobody in Mexico could understand the English accented version.

  2. Dash
    October 14, 2009 at 11:03 am

    That’s interesting…

    When I asked my students whether they knew “Boston” no one raised their hand. But when I asked them if they knew “ボストン” they all knew it…

  3. Peri
    October 14, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    I’m not sure of the percentage but much of English as we know it is not old Anglo-Saxon. Many words borrowed from e.g. French and Dutch that we no longer consider foreign (academy, culture, yacht, stoop) are in fact not English…originally. So, after time we no longer know a word is “foreign” although the speaker of the language from which it came might recognize it as such. We would think it odd if a French person pronounced academy as académie, or we would think s/he had a strong French accent—my opinion is that a word should be pronounced, despite its origins, as it is pronounced in the borrowing language; in other words, Dash, saying “communication” as the Japanese do, or as you would pronounce e.g. tram in Dutch (trem, not trahm).

  4. dotbearman
    October 14, 2009 at 11:47 pm

    i ALWAYS CRINGE WHEN MY HUSBAND DECIDES TO CALL gouda as if it were GOWDA which may or may not be the way the Dutch pronounce it..I ask for GOODA and feel that it is least pretentious… what’cha think???

  5. Dash
    October 15, 2009 at 3:27 am

    This is why I brought it up, because it seems like it’s about split 50/50. Some people do their best to pronounce the word the way it “should” sound, while others just pronounce it the way they know. Of course there are tons of words like Mom points out that we don’t even realize aren’t “native.” But I think we may have to make an exception for English based solely on the fact that it’s a freak language. Especially because it’s such a global language it has taken over far more words than I think any other. I have no proof to back this up but it’s an educated guess, I think.

  6. Cat
    October 29, 2009 at 9:49 am

    Hiii Dash,

    It’s Cat (we took Kanji Mastery together way back in the day XD )

    And uumm I’ve had issues like that before too–when I studied abroad, I always used the Japanese pronunciation, so as not to sound gaijin-like.

    Ever heard of the band Ellegarden? Well, in Japanese, it’s pronounced エルレガーデン, and the ru-re sound in there always got me tongue-tied. I tried mentioning them in conversation to my friend Shouya, and he was like, “うぉ!初めて外人に聞こえた!” And I was like, damn…. I don’t like sounding like a gaijin.

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